A KNOCK on the door prompts a thunderous barrage of barking, followed by a deep
thud thud thud
, as if something very big and angry is trying to bash through.
Deirdre Geurin opens the door, and a pit bull bounds out.
With a triangular head and muscular chest and with plenty of teeth on display, the dog looks fierce, and in sheer energy, could have been an understudy for Cujo.
But then the dog kisses you. And snuffles your hair. And crowds your legs, begging for a back-scratching.
"My dog is a make-out queen. She just likes to lay on the kisses," Geurin says half apologetically, half adoringly. "I've had people play with my dog on the street. Then when they ask: 'What kind of dog is this?' they jump back 10 feet when I say pit bull."
Such blind fear is what drives Geurin these days.
A longtime animal-lover and activist, Geurin decided to take on the prejudice that drives some communities to declare pit bulls a "dangerous breed."
Worried that a traditional public-awareness campaign wouldn't reach the masses she hoped to convert, she came up with a novel strategy.
"I was like: 'How can I trick people into paying attention?' I was trying to think of something everybody likes. A lot of people don't like pit bulls, but everyone likes pretty girls," said Geurin, 30, of Morrisville, Bucks County.
So last year, she recruited about a dozen models to pose provocatively in everything from bikinis and stilettos to a low-cut, skin-tight nurse's uniform. Pit bulls posed alongside the models in every photo, and ads printed throughout the calendars promoted pit-bull rescue centers, pet boutiques and other businesses committed to the cause.
Geurin, whose day job involves counseling first-time homebuyers at a Morrisville credit company, is a sometime model who performs in area burlesque shows as "Little Darling."
The calendar was so successful last year - it raised about $4,000 for area pit-bull rescue centers - that Geurin repeated the effort this year.
And like most second efforts, it has improved. To ensure chemistry between the pit bulls and pinup models pictured, she required that models be pit-bull owners and advocates. Most models pictured are so enamored of their pets that they have immortalized them in tattoos. Geurin, who appears in the 2007 and 2008 calendars, has two pit bulls inked on her right arm, while another model's back is almost covered by tattoos of her cat and three pit bulls.
Geurin said she's been a dog-lover since childhood, when her family kept German shepherds.
In the mid-1990s, she began volunteering at an animal-rescue center in Philadelphia that had a policy of euthanizing pit bulls regardless of their temperament. When the shelter refused to let her adopt and then euthanized a friendly pit bull someone had dropped off, her activism flared from her outrage.
"How does that make you a rescue [center], if you're not willing to save a dog's life?" said Geurin, who traveled to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 to help pet-rescue-and-recovery efforts.
She adopted her first pit bull, Carla Lou, from a Texas rescue center, spending a week's paycheck to have the dog shipped to Pennsylvania. Abandoned as a puppy by dogfighters, Carla Lou is now 12 and has the friendly, slow-moving manner of an old dog.
Baxter, her third pit bull - another named Howie now lives with her ex-husband- was dumped with a litter of pit-bull pups at a rescue center in Hamilton, N.J., a few years ago. Most were suffering from canine parvovirus, and Baxter had jagged, oozing burn wounds down his back and hindquarters that a veterinarian determined probably was the result of someone dousing him with a toxic liquid such as Drano.
The thought of city officials' banning dogs like Baxter, Howie and Carla Lou drove Geurin to invest hundreds of her own dollars to create her calendars.
"They're not the monsters that they're made out to be," Geurin said.
Even pit bulls made vicious by dogfighting should not be demonized, because their trainers and owners are responsible for their violent behavior, Geurin added.
"I want to be a voice for the voiceless and say that dogs are the victims here. That's the reality of what these people call sport," Geurin said of the illegal activity. "If I could be a vigilante, people like Michael Vick [the former Atlanta Falcons quarterback convicted this year in a dogfighting scheme in Virginia] would definitely suffer."
Philadelphia does not have a breed-specific ban on dangerous breeds; Pennsylvania lawmakers have prohibited such bans.
But such policies have been considered and occasionally enacted in cities from New York to Denver. Sometimes restricted dogs are required merely to be muzzled and fenced in; other cities prohibit them altogether.
Regionally, Reading has gotten around Pennsylvania's breed-specific ban by enacting an aggressive-dog ordinance that goes into effect when any particular breed is responsible for more than 40 percent of dog bites reported yearly.
Pit bulls there are on the brink of that benchmark this year. A determination will be made after the year's final dog-bite tally through Dec. 31 is known, said Karl Minor, executive director of the Humane Society of Berks County.
If Reading declares pit bulls an aggressive breed in 2008, their owners would have to buy permits ($500 for unsterilized dogs, or $50, sterilized) to attach to their collars and to display notices in their windows warning that they own an aggressive dog, Minor said.
Besides municipal crackdowns, landlords often put breed-specific bans in leases. And many insurance companies charge higher rates or even refuse to cover homes where pit bulls live.
Supporters say such restrictions keep dangerous dogs from menacing communities.
But pit-bull advocates say the restrictions are unfair to owners and friendly pit bulls. Minor predicted that Reading's restrictions, if enacted, would flood courts with lawsuits and city officials with complaints.
"[Dogfighting] is a secret society," Geurin said. "They're not going to be affected by the breed ban. The people you're hurting are people who keep pit bulls as pets." *